Swap the South Island for the island of Rarotonga – a slice of heaven in the Pacific that offers everything from brimming ocean life and brilliant white sand to decadent cocktails and a rich cultural heritage.
Words Mike Yardley
Escape the humdrum of the daily grind to the quintessential South Pacific island paradise of Rarotonga, steeped in heritage and culture. The bewitching blend of serrated mountains, sawtooth hills, dense tropical jungle, bountiful plantations and deliciously sugar-white beaches sets the stage for great adventures.
Encircled by a coral reef, the Rarotongan lagoon supports a dazzling variety of tropical fish, with an even greater array of sea life in the deep water outside the reef, including eagle rays, sea turtles and black-tipped reef sharks. But what makes the Rarotongan lagoon so family-pleasing is the shallowness of the crystal clear water, preventing sharks from being able to enter.
The resolutely island time tempo of Rarotonga is as pervasive as it is infectious. I loved going on improvised drives around the main coastal road, Ara Tapu, marvelling over the colourful shop fronts, roadside fruit stalls, flower-laden gravesites, groaning banana trees and vast taro plantations.
Rarotonga exudes an instant likeability that only grows stronger the longer you stay. Of course, your idea of South Pacific holiday heaven may well be confined to lounging on the sand and dabbling in the turquoise lagoon, in search of Nemo. But if you want to dig a little deeper at Rarotonga’s roots, the island offers a wealth of profoundly enriching and authentic encounters, with nature and the culture to the fore.
It’s absolutely where the magic happens. Beyond the beach, the broad arc of pale sands and the crisp lagoon palette of electric blues and turquoise hues, the backroads of Rarotonga vividly reveal the life and soul of this South Pacific jewel.
Tear yourself away from the beach to dig a little deeper at the roots of the island. Locals loosely consider the coastline-hugging main circle island road as the ‘tourist road’. The backroad, Ara Metua, and its adjoining lanes, is like entering another world, where the beating heart of Rarotongan authenticity slaps you in the face at every turn with its living history and village vitality.
Much of the backroad is 1000 years old, constructed from coral stone and basalt rock, by the great chief Toi. Prior to European contact, Rarotongans predominantly lived in the foothills of the island, in the shadow of the towering volcanic peaks that serrate the skyline with a Jurassic Park-style aura. Villagers would only venture down to the coastline to fish and collect seafood.
The interior provided much greater protection from tropical cyclones and potential enemy attacks. Ireland’s fabled ‘40 shades of green’ would meet their match on Rarotonga’s backroads, crowned by mighty peaks like Te Manga.
The rich, volcanic soils and tropical climate conspire to produce rampantly fertile growing conditions for a kaleidoscope of lush and verdant vegetation. The backroad is like an open-air supermarket and pharmacy, where trees heave with succulent fruit ripe for the picking, alongside an encyclopaedia of traditional medicinal plants.
As I picked giant paw-paws from a roadside tree, playful piglets cavorted in paddocks while goats munched contentedly on the leftovers of a freshly harvested taro plantation. The backroad ushers you into a timeless world of free-range harmony in abundance. Rarotonga has become a byword for mango, guava, star fruit and candlenuts, in my book.
If you’re doing a self-drive, keep an eye out for roaming animals. On one occasion, a massive pig barrelled out in front of me, staring at me in panic before frantically hoofing it across the road. I slammed on the brakes of my rental, gripped by the fear of the insurance excess, managing to save his bacon and my bank account.
Just past Muri village, definitely call into the sacred site of Avana Harbour. It was here in 700BC that Polynesian voyaging canoes made their first Rarotonga landing, arriving from Tahiti and Samoa. Avana Passage was also the departure point for the great migration to Aotearoa, in approximately 1350AD.
The names of the seven lead canoes are proudly emblazoned on the hoardings at Avana, although some locals told me their oral history suggests 200 canoes actually took part in the Great Migration. Today, Avana and Avatiu Harbours are regularly home to marumaru atua, a traditional double-hulled voyaging canoe. It’s an evocative sight, binding the ocean-faring past with the present.
For holiday hijinks, I jumped behind the wheel of a Rarotonga Buggy Tour buggy. These grunty off-road vehicles are a cross between a go-kart and a beach buggy, highly manoeuvrable and hard – or hard on the butt. You’ll feel every bump.
They’re kitted out with roll cages if it all goes badly wrong. These wildly popular buggy tours have been making quite a splash, with the seriously muddy puddles proving to be the big magnet. Our conga line of yellow buggies looked like a slithering giant snake, as we rattled along the main road, backroad and off-road.
The biggest mud pits awaited us at the site of an ill-fated and abandoned Sheraton Hotel development. Our touring route also romped into the hinterland and the Turangi Valley, thickly carpeted with tropical rainforest.
I can certainly see why you’re advised to wear old clothes, because I was caked in mud, from head to toe. A rendezvous with Wigmore’s Waterfall provided a welcome chance to have a cleansing dip in the pool at the fall’s base.
As twilight beckoned, I joined some fellow Kiwis from Tauranga on a sunset cocktail tour aboard Tik-e Tours’ tuk-tuk train. This enterprising tour company, run by Kiwis Karl and Tania, offers a variety of guided sightseeing experiences on their fleet of electric tuk-tuks, dinner, wedding and airport transfers, plus they also have e-bikes for hire.
As we merrily gazed over the setting sun, we bar hopped heartily along Arorangi’s necklace of beachfront hot spots, on the sunset coast. From the road, you would never know what jewel-like bars and nightspots are discreetly tucked away.
We called into Shipwreck Hut for an obligatory pina colada. It has previously been voted one of the best beach bars in the world by CNN and it’s the larger-than-life bar staff who seal the deal. Alone and Stephanie should be a double act on stage.
My runaway favourite haunt was On the Beach Bar (OTB) at Manuia Beach Resort. Fanning out from the glorious kikau-thatched restaurant, picnic tables were scattered across the sand, where we downed a Manuia Kiss (vodka, peach liqueur, blue curaçao, grenadine and lemonade) over some scrumptious seafood nibbles.
Don’t miss Wilson’s Beach Bar, which features bonfires on the beach as you sip on sundowners and nibble on yakitori skewers. I ordered up some Blow Me Ups, the most extravagant cocktail, comprising a variety of hard spirits, liqueurs, hazelnut and chocolate sauce. It doubled as dessert.
An indelible dinner experience awaits you at the iconic Trader Jacks, on the Avarua waterfront. Rarotonga’s best-known bar and restaurant has been a labour of love for its colourful and often controversial owner, Kiwi-born Jack Cooper, who sadly passed away last year in Rarotonga.
Ripped apart by three cyclones since it was first established in 1986, there are numerous stories associated with the pub, including Zac Guildford’s notoriously naked appearance at the bar, some years ago. Needless to stay, catch of the day seafood is a hot seller. I highly rated the Cajun parrotfish fillets with roast vegetables, pesto rice, pawpaw salsa and turmeric aioli.
Let’s be honest, island night shows can be a bit of a tourist trap. But if you want to partake in a mix of local music, dancing and food, with a heightened sense of authenticity and heritage, Highland Paradise is an excellent choice.
Perched on the slopes of the sacred peak of Maungaroa stands the site of the ancient mountain refuge of the Tinomana people. Abandoned in the 19th century, following the tribe’s conversion to Christianity, the village was reclaimed from the jungle just 35 years ago by Raymond Pirangi, a descendant of the last pre-Christian high chief (ariki) of the Tinomana.
Amongst 25 developed acres of magnificent gardens and views you’ll experience drumming, singing, dancing, weaving, carving, medicine making, storytelling and umu feasting just as they were doing more than 600 years ago on this very spot!
The lush botanical garden commands soul-stirring views across the west coast of Rarotonga, yet the highlight for me was seeing the remains of the ancient marae, which has been carbon-dated to 500AD.
Danny Mataroa has a personal connection through tribal links to the village and guides people through the cultural history of Highland Paradise. He pointed out, as we stood in the lush grounds, the neighbouring flat-top mountain of Raemaru. Legend has it that a major tribal conquest led to the top of the mountain being sliced off and spirited away to Aitutaki, because the locals didn’t have a decent sized hill on their island.
After a moving tapu lifting ceremony in which offerings are made to the ancestors of the marae, guests are welcomed into the cultural centre for an ebullient showcase of traditional entertainment, as you tuck into a hearty buffet dinner, replete with traditional foods including taro, arrowroot, wahoo fish and rukau (the young leaves of a taro plant, very high in iron, which after being boiled for several hours are mixed with coconut cream to produce a delightful dish – and a staple for Rarotongans.)